As a single mother with two young children, Kristina Artino doesn't have money to throw around.
So she's grateful that her job as an administrative assistant at the University of Akron comes with a pleasant benefit: fee remission.
She finished her bachelor's degree in technical education with free tuition, will wrap up her master's in technical education this spring with free tuition and might go on to pursue a doctorate — after she catches her breath, that is — with free tuition.
If she's still employed at UA when her children go to college and benefits don't change, they could attend for free, too.
Across Ohio, tax-supported universities remitted more than $20 million in tuition — and often other fees — for more than 10,000 employees and their family members for last fall's term alone, according to a Beacon Journal survey.
When annualized for the rest of the academic year, the total probably exceeds more than $40 million.
Benefits allow the employee and a broad range of family members — spouses, same-sex partners, dependent children, retirees and sometimes even foster children and spouses of deceased employees — to attend college for free or a reduced price at every level of academia, from associate degrees through doctorates.
The benefit helps to recruit and retain employees, said Provost Mike Sherman of UA, which provided about $2.5 million in free tuition to almost 1,000 employees and family members last fall.
His daughter is attending UA on fee remission, although she had chosen to go to there before he got the job at the university, he said.
''You can think of it as equiv
alent for a scholarship,'' he said. ''It contributes to the quality of a community.''
Remission a cornerstone
The start of tuition remission appears to be buried in the annals of individual institutions. Many have remitted fees for years upon years upon years, said Rob Evans, spokesman for the Ohio Board of Regents, which coordinates higher education statewide.
''I wouldn't be surprised if they've always had it,'' he said.
Tuition remission appears to have started as a way to help pad the pocketbooks of poorly paid academics.
Fast-forward to today, when some form is available to all full-time university employees, from kitchen staff and groundskeepers making minimum wage to faculty who are paid an average of $72,000 at UA and Kent State and $103,000 at Ohio State, according to a yearly OSU survey. Top university officials who make $200,000 and up regularly use the benefit to send their children to college.
In fact, tuition remission remains a cornerstone of just about every college and university in America, public and private, according to a survey by the College and University Professionals Association.
Last year it found that 98 percent of 340 responding institutions provide free tuition to full-time employees, the benefits varying widely among institutions.
In Ohio, Kent State's generous policy waives up to 18 credit hours of instruction and general fees each semester for full-time employees and family members and waives the out-of-state surcharge that would double the cost, if applicable. KSU allows dependent offspring up to age 28 to qualify for the remission.
At Youngstown State, eligible employees can take up to 24 credit hours a year without paying tuition or general fees; surviving spouses can take courses as long as they remain unmarried. Part-time employees receive prorated benefits.
Tuition remission is an especially valuable benefit to employees with college-age children. The regular tuition bill for a full-time undergraduate in Ohio is about $9,000 a year, or $36,000 for a four-year degree.
The four sons of Richard A. Lewis, a UA emeritus associate professor of electrical engineering, have earned nine degrees and certificates from UA, some through graduate assistantships that offer free tuition.
''He made it clear that UA was our family's education plan unless we wanted to self-finance our own educations,'' said Matt Williams of Green, who heads a national nonprofit that is working to improve pay and benefits for part-time instructors.
''I've never totaled up the bill, but [the benefit] was of considerable assistance.''
UA's studies of its policy conclude it doesn't cost the university anything to provide.
''Every year the university's enrollment is increasing and that has included enough buffer to accommodate growth in fee-remission students,'' Provost Sherman said.
The university studied the issue in 2000. ''If we redid it, I think that is what we would find at this point in time.'' Sherman said.
Ohio State strictest
Some universities restrict their tuition remission plans.
Ohio State has the strictest policy in the state, providing only 10 credit hours a term for employees, requiring them to pass the course or repay the money and limiting the amount of the benefit to 200 credit hours. Family members qualify for smaller benefits: 50 percent off tuition if one parent is employed and 75 percent if both are.
Larry Lewellyn, vice president of human resources, said the university pays attention to the benefits offered by the 62 public and private peers in the elite Association of American Universities.
''We're competitive at that level, but we're still conservative,'' he said. ''We believe that Ohio is generally a conservative state.''
OSU has resisted calls to broaden its family policy to the standard in Ohio of 100 percent payment:
''We don't believe in 100 percent tuition payment for dependents. We don't believe it needs to be,'' Lewellyn said.
The private New York University curbed its benefits this spring, delaying eligibility from three months to a year and levying a 10 percent co-payment on employees making $50,000 and up who take courses or whose family members do. The university says that's more in line with its peers, which include Brown and Columbia.
Discussion in Senate
The subject of tuition remission has caught the attention of Ohio's Senate majority leadership as well.
Chris Widener, R-Springfield, said he and fellow legislators are interested in looking at stricter tuition remission policies as a way to help close Ohio's budget gap.
''This is something that we want to pursue,'' said Widener, chairman of the Senate finance committee. ''We have been talking about this for more than a month.''
If the state takes any steps to limit tuition remission, it could prove expensive to employees like Artino, the administrative assistant in UA's School of Communication.
She said she wouldn't have been able to accomplish as much without the fee remission.
She will use her degrees as steppingstones: to teach part time at UA this fall, possibly to be promoted and maybe to pursue a doctorate in education. The university is enabling her to achieve her dreams.
''I'm finally almost through with what I never thought I could do,'' she said.
Carol Biliczky can be reached at 330-996-3729 or firstname.lastname@example.org.